War Made C.S. Lewis
World War I transformed the author and Christian apologist
The barrage of artillery fire was supposed to keep the Germans in their trenches while soldiers of the Somerset Light Infantry staged a counter-attack near the French town of Riez du Vinage on April 15, 1918.
It was all part of the Spring Offensive, a massive redeployment of German soldiers to the Western Front after Russia withdrew from the Great War.
Like so many grand plans of the war, the offensive was supposed to break the stalemate on the front and provide some kind of pathway to victory—whatever that would be.
Soon, the German artillery returned fire. Creeping forward with his company was 2nd Lt. Clive Staples Lewis, an Irishman who could have avoided serving in the British Army but who never even considered sitting out the war.
A shell exploded—whether it was German or British is a matter of debate—instantly killing a nearby sergeant and peppering Lewis with shrapnel. He was severely wounded when the metal shards lodged in his left wrist, left leg and upper left ribs, the third piece puncturing his left lung.
“Just after I was hit, I found (or thought I found) that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death,” Lewis later wrote. “I felt no fear and certainly no courage. It did not seem to be an occasion for either.”
The Lewis who crawled away from the carnage was not yet the C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. Then, he was like so many others who fought in World War I—just another wounded soldier desperate not to bleed to death.
But the man of letters who would become the foremost Christian apologist of the 20th century as well as a celebrated scholar of medieval and renaissance literature considered The Great War one of the most influential events of his lifetime.
He was also a “man of war” who rejected pacifism, portrayed warfare in his popular children’s stories, and even argued fighting in a righteous cause might be a Christian’s duty.
“Lewis thought some wars justifiable—and thus to a certain extent good, I think he would say,” George Musacchio, the William Vann Research Professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and a scholar of C.S. Lewis’ life and works, told War Is Boring.
Musacchio, who is also the author of C.S. Lewis, Man and Writer: Essays and Reviews, said Lewis was no pacifist but a believer in what he called “righteous war”—wars fought to defeat evil and preserve the good.
“Lewis has sometimes been criticized for the many battles in The Chronicles of Narnia,” Musacchio said. “Both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian climax with a war. The title of the final volume, The Last Battle, speaks for itself. But Lewis is following the time-honored distinction between good and evil and between a just and unjust war.”
Lewis’ eventual outlook on war sets him at odds with many Oxford- and Cambridge-educated young men who answered the call of King and Country during World War I. Some of them were like Lewis and possessed literary aspirations—poets such as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon portrayed the unremitting horror of trench warfare in what they wrote, which is considered the finest literature of the period.
But Lewis was more like his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who survived the Battle of the Somme despite being grievously ill with trench fever. Both men came away from their war experience changed by the horror of it all, but convinced later that warfare could also be a battle of good vs. evil.
Both in Narnia and Middle Earth, all manner of creatures battle evil incarnate whether it is the White Witch of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Sauron in The Lord of the Rings.
However, the Lewis who wrote thinly-disguised Christian parables in the form of children’s stories did not exist in 1918. Lewis was then a committed atheist who believed the Jesus portrayed in the Bible was similar to stories from classical myths.
During his war service, Lewis continued to write poems for a collection he had begun earlier at Oxford. Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics would become his first published book in 1919.
“Some of the lyrics reveal his atheism, while others suggest his anger about the nature of the God who might exist,” Musacchio said. “The horrors of war exacerbated the cynicism he had developed during his earlier teens.”
Years later, Britain was embroiled in another war, this time for its very survival.
During World War II, Lewis accepted an invitation from an Oxford pacifist society to discuss why he was not a pacifist. By this time, he was also an outspoken Christian who publicly defended the faith.
“I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can,” Lewis said during the 1940 address, which was later published as Why I Am Not A Pacifist.
“To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terribly by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made,” Lewis continued, “just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.”
His objections to pacifism were dispassionate and logical. Yet, Lewis was not dispassionate about what Britain faced throughout World War II.
At age 41, he did his duty by joining the Home Guard, a military auxiliary often comprised of veterans of the first war who protected important sites in Great Britain. In August 1940, he received a uniform and rifle, and he began patrolling a section of Oxford’s periphery for three hours every Saturday morning accompanied by two other members of the Guard.
The Home Guard—nicknamed “Dad’s Army” because of the age of its members—was frequently derided. Yet, if Germany had invaded the British Isles the only defense force that would have stood in their way was volunteers like Lewis.
Lewis was no John Bull jingoist, though. Anyone doubting whether he understood the horrible realities of warfare need only read Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.
His 1955 autobiography not only outlines the events leading to his conversion to Christianity but also his wartime experiences. In the book, he recalls “the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it ‘whined’ like a journalists or a peacetime poet’s bullet.”
“At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, ‘This is war. This is what Homer wrote about.’”
In a line that Wilfred Owen could have penned, Lewis said, “I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still.”
And he offers one of the most concise yet accurate descriptions of The Great War ever written, framed in a way reminiscent of a man trying to forget what happened so he can get on with his life.
“The frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet—all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else.”
After he recovered from his wounds, the British Army discharged Lewis. He returned to his undergraduate education at University College, Oxford, where he took several degrees and became an accomplished scholar.
Abandoning his atheism as the years waned, by 1931 he was an avowed Christian, a faith he would spend the rest of his life defending with his considerable intellectual gifts.
He died at 64 of renal failure on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day Pres. John F. Kennedy was assassinated.